Turnaround schools keep most students

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At a recent press conference on federal incentive grants meant to spark educational innovation, President Barack Obama highlighted Chicago’s turnaround schools and lauded the work done by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

 

At a recent press conference on federal incentive grants meant to spark educational innovation, President Barack Obama highlighted Chicago’s turnaround schools and lauded the work done by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

The attention once again sparked discussion about whether AUSL’s turnaround schools have shown test score improvements because of changes in the student population—more specifically, an influx of more middle-class youngsters. 

I asked the Consortium on Chicago School Research to check this hypothesis against the student records at two of the most lauded schools. One is Dodge School of Excellence on the West Side, which closed for the entire 2002-2003 school year and reopened with new teachers and leadership in the fall of 2003.

Because of that year-long closure, it is not entirely surprising that only 45 percent of the original students came back. Plus, there’s also some evidence to suggest that over time, fewer poor families are living in the community. Dett Elementary, which is a third of a mile away from Dodge, saw a decline in low-income students over the past few years. 

In 2005, Dett and Dodge both had about a quarter of students meeting or exceeding standards. Since then, both have made progress, but Dett, with 70 percent meeting or exceeding standards in 2009, still lags a bit behind Dodge, which has 77 percent of students meeting that threshold.  

Sherman, the second school I asked the Consortium to examine, is nestled between Back of the Yards and Englewood, in New City. In October of 2008, I wrote a story about how this area had the largest nexus of poorly- performing schools in the city.  According to the Consortium, Sherman held onto 85 percent of its students through its turnaround, a figure that is on par with other non-turnaround neighborhood schools. It has been two years since the turnaround and, this year, 51 percent of students met standards—a 10 percentage point improvement from 2008. 

Meanwhile, two nearby schools, Fulton and Coperinus, were in their first year of being turned around and saw a pretty dramatic dip in test scores. CPS is managing those turnarounds.


Critics of turnarounds have noted that AUSL raises a ton of money from foundations and other sources, giving them extra resources. And as part of my package on black boys in CPS, I wrote a story about Sherman Principal Lionel Allen and his move to assert more control over the school. The end result was more suspensions and expulsions, which the cynical might suggest push difficult students out of the school. 

The message in all of this information is not that AUSL is good or bad, or that turnaround critics are right or wrong. Rather, it’s that data, whether it’s test scores or the percentage of low- income students, does not tell the whole story. It only leads to more questions. We should hope that as Education Secretary Arne Duncan embraces this approach, someone behind the scenes is asking some of these questions.